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Review: Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia, Balkan Brass Battle

Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia
Balkan Brass Battle
[Asphalt Tango (2011)]

By now, Balkan brass is an accepted and much-loved part of the “world music” industry. Give thanks to Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica for this. His hallucinatory, rabidly-exciting scenes of gypsy life in the Balkans, though rife with stereotypes, are also so much fun that they sparked a huge love for this music in the West. Think a mix between O Brother Where Art Thou if it was set in Eastern Europe and the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), and you have an idea of what his films are like. Classic Kusturica films include Underground, Time of the Gypsies, and Black Cat, White Cat. If you haven’t heard of Kusturica, drop what you’re doing right now and add Underground to the top of your Netflix queue [or quickflix or whatever the heck they’re calling their DVD service these days … -ed]. Seriously. It will blow your mind. Or if you’ve already seen his movies, drop everything and add Arizona Dream to your queue. It’s his foray into American film, and it’s totally insane. Starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and Jerry Lewis, it’s a psychedelic romp through Southern Americana. Pure mad genius.

A key to Kusturica’s movies is his use of intense Balkan brass, and his integration of the brass bands into his film (see the Youtube clip from Underground). There’s something innate in Balkan brass; I think it’s a music you have to be born into. You can hear the desperation and anger of Eastern Europe’s Roma (not Gypsy, please) people in every note. This isn’t music to relax to; this is music to make your walls bounce. It’s frenetic and weird and overwhelming. And it’s infused with the party-or-die attitude of Eastern Europe. Balkan brass bands in concert put out a colossal amount of energy; I once saw someone fall into a canal, they were dancing so hard to the music. So the thought of bringing two Roma brass bands together, and two of the very best, is kind of staggering. And true enough, this battle between top ranked bands Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra (known for their playing in Kusturica’s movies) and Fanfare Ciocarlia (one of the best Balkan brass bands) is every bit as house-shaking as imagined.

Recorded in 48 hours in a Transylvanian hotel outside Castle Dracula (according to the press release), the ensuing album, Balkan Brass Battle, brings together these two giants of Balkan brass to cover such unusual material as the James Bond theme and the Gummy Bear song. And they produce stunning renditions of both, which may surprise you when you realize just how silly the Gummy Bear song is. On the Western covers, the beats are extra funky, channeling an almost funkadelic sound, and helping to tilt the axis away from the insanely frenetic sounds of Balkan brass. But the album really shines when the groups tear up traditional Balkan folk music. “Devla” is a hallucinatory romp through Balkan rhythms, with each group blasting back and forth. And tracks like “Topdzijsko Kolo” and “Dances from the Monestary Hills” give the listener a great intro to the true sounds of Balkan brass. Each band gets their time to shine with their own tracks on the album, and you can compare and contrast the bands via their alternate takes on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”

Many of the tracks have the oom-pa oom-pa beat usually associated with Oktoberfest polkas, but the rhythm is so jacked up that you’d probably injure yourself trying to dance to this music with a belly full of German beer. In fact, Roma brass music is so intense that injuries on the dance floor are not uncommon. These are the kind of bands that close out the night at an all-night Balkan dance party, probably breaking half the chairs in the place with their hard-partying dance music. Now you have a chance to bring home your own party with this collaborative album of Balkan brass.

Kusturica’s Underground Opening Scene:

Trailer for Balkan Brass Battle:

—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)


One comment on “Review: Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia, Balkan Brass Battle

  1. This is an especially welcome review as neither the movies of Emir Kusturica (way
    better than his rock band which to my humble ears sucked) or the giants of ecstatically soulful Balkan brass are deemed newsworthy in provincial U.S. mass media and not much
    in English on Balkan culture even in cyberspace. Thanks for having a regular writer who
    knows his way over, under, around and through post-Yugo Balkanized culture. First time I saw TIME OF THE GYPSIES at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley I just lost it more than in any other movie experience I’ve had. It still seems magical as does Kusturica & Goran Bregovic’s score. That the fate of the Roma in a crumbling New World Order would again foreshadow genocide in Europe barely fifty years since the Nazi Death Camp deportations
    and Einsatzgruppen mobile death truck squads is a shame shared by the whole western world. To Kusturica’s credit he shows Roma life warts and child-trafficking and all and it doesn’t diminish the care we come to feel for the characters born into this toughest of worlds. Thanks Devon Leger for the tip on UNDERGROUND and link to film clip.

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